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African ministers tackle refugee problems on their continent


African ministers tackle refugee problems on their continent

14 December 2001

GENEVA, Dec. 14 (UNHCR) - One day after the international community reaffirmed its strong support for the 1951 Refugee Convention, African delegates met Friday to develop new policies for the continent's more than 13 million refugees and internally displaced persons.

"Refugees often develop a dependency syndrome as passive recipients of assistance," said Kolude Doherty, UNHCR's Africa Bureau Director. "Protection problems and insecurity may arise from these situations of enforced idleness."

Africa, with 3.6 million refugees, accounts for 30 percent of the world's refugee population and for almost half of the globe's estimated 20-25 million internally displaced persons. The continent absorbs more than one third of UNHCR's annual budget.

The meeting was held one day after an unprecedented conference of 156 countries reaffirmed the ideals of the 1951 Refugee Convention even as that document has come under intense political attack in recent years with some critics insisting it was becoming increasingly irrelevant in a more complex world.

But High Commissioner Ruud Lubbers strongly defended the document, which he compared with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. "The Convention will go on, from there we can try to improve the policies," he said. "The problem is not the Convention, the Convention is the solution."

A joint declaration adopted by the signatories to the Convention called for stronger protection of refugees and asylum seekers at a time when uprooted people were increasingly associated with criminals and terrorists. The declaration hailed the "relevance and resilience" as well as the "enduring importance" of the 1951 Convention.

"It's time to speak of refugees not only as a burden or as miserable people but to see them as potential valuable citizens," Lubbers told a news conference Thursday. "We must change the way we look at refugees."

The reaffirmation of the document's goals, he added, should be seen as an agenda for future action. The goal now, he said, was to seek solutions to the root causes of migration flows. "This will take quite some time," he acknowledged. "We have to live with the phenomenon that each year there will be another incident, another tragedy, another civil war."

The declaration emphasised that the principle of the non-forcible return of asylum seekers (refoulement) was sacrosanct, saying that preventing crises was the best way to avoid future refugee problems. It added that while states should search for permanent solutions for those uprooted, especially through voluntary repatriation to their countries of origin, they should continue to integrate and resettle those who cannot return home.

Africa has faced major refugee challenges during the past decade, with genocide and civil war creating hundreds of thousands of refugees from numerous countries, including Rwanda, Angola, Sierra Leone, Liberia, the Sudan and Somalia. The massive flux of civilians posed security problems in camps near dangerous border areas. In other cases, such as in Zambia and the Democratic Republic of Congo, armed militias have had to be separated from civilians.

The closed-door discussions among delegates from 48 countries, including 30 ministers, will recommend policies to allow refugees become active participants in promoting development rather than being simply a burden to their host communities.

The delegates also discussed legislation granting long-term refugees access to land and the right to work, called for more investment in education and training schemes and the introduction of self-reliance projects from the very early stages of a refugee emergency.

The discussions will also focused on improving registration of refugees and considered problems posed by the mixed flows of migrants and refugees.